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Spark of genius - Driven : Porsche's 1900 hybrid

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Think gas-electric hybrid cars are newfangled technology? Ferdinand Porsche got there first back in 1900.

Scattering ducks and dust, sitting high over hedgerows and passing fields and villages so fast that you became a wind-carved observer. In Great Morning (1948) Osbert Sitwell wrote that ‘all these physical impressions, so small in themselves, went to form a sum of feeling new in its kind and never before experienced… no other generation had been able to speed into the sunset’.

Such was the exhilarating lot of the turn-of-century motorist. Less often eulogized are the punctures, the mud, the absence of ‘motor spirit’ dealers (gas was sold via chemists) and the flickering, primitive engines that could, with a single kerplunk, leave you 
stranded miles from anywhere.

Think you can fix your iPad? No? Well consider the early 
motorist staring glumly at the innards of his single-cylinder engine. Then square or cube that predicament for the first Lohner owners. These early electric cars were designed with fiendish, steam-punk complexity by the precocious Ferdinand Porsche. In-wheel, direct-current electric motors, fragile glass accumulators and, in the case of the prototype Semper Vivus, the world’s first hybrid drive system. Where would you start if it failed to start?

It was a predicament facing Hubert Drescher when he received a commission from the Stuttgart Porsche museum to recreate the Lohner Semper Vivus (meaning ‘always alive’), the one-off star of the 1900 Paris Show, which was the centerpiece of Porsche’s stand at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. There were old sepia photographs, but that was about it and Drescher spent the first three months in research, travelling to the Budapest museum – a repository of several Lohner models – and the Munich offices where Porsche had filed a patent application for a mechanical electrical regulator.

‘I had to try to get into the mind of Porsche,’ he says, ‘to find his 
true intentions.’ In fact Ferdinand’s patented regulator never 
worked, which must have been something of a first and last for Porsche. Besides, anyone who has grappled with a 1960s electrical/mechanical Lucas 6TA regulator will know they seldom work, either.

The museum called in electrical experts from Siemens, who 
started to painstakingly retrace Porsche’s electrical experiments. Porsche and electricity? Turns out the young Ferdinand was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into plumbing – imagine, Porsche the plumber, complete with bushy moustache and a second career moonlighting in bad German porn.

But the young Porsche took off for Vienna to study electrical engineering, which was where he met the boss of Austrian 
coachbuilder Jacob Lohner, who hired him as an engineer. The result was a series of pioneering vehicles and glittering concepts, of which the Semper Vivus was one. Sitting at the wheel, the sense of occasion is palpable. This is a twin-chassis car built 81 years before the controversial Lotus 88 F1 grand prix car. This is an extended-range battery hybrid built 105 years before General Motors unveiled the Chevrolet Volt. As for in-wheel electric motors, we’re still waiting.

Like many contemporaries, Porsche took the ubiquitous 3.5hp 
de Dion-Bouton engine (in 1900, de Dion was the world’s largest car and engine maker). Where rivals created motor carriages that relied on these engines’ terrible transient operation, Porsche used them as single-speed generators and relied on the massive torque and user-friendliness of the Radnabenmotor – the in-wheel electric motor – to actually do the driving. But while the design was inspired, let’s not go too overboard for the technology.

The original car would have used a fragile, glass-bodied 44-cell accumulator mounted on a separate sprung chassis that, as well as 
the battery, also supported passenger seating and twin de Dion 
single-cylinder engines. These could run separately and drive two individual 2.5hp generators, providing 20 amps at 90 volts to power 
the wheel motors and charge the battery. The generators could also be run in reverse to start the gas engines.

Trouble is, while the Semper Vivus’s hybrid system almost halved the battery weight of its 74-cell predecessor, this one-off vehicle weighed 1.2 tonnes, which was at the ragged limit of what the contemporary tires could bear. With gigantic Toblerone-shaped magnets spinning on each axle and massive copper windings on the hub, each wheel motor weighed 270kg, which banjaxed the primitive ride and handling and meant that the steering system required 
insanely long gearing to allow the driver to maneuver.

Fortunately, handling is secondary here in Stuttgart, where there’s an impromptu driving session of the Semper Vivus. Drescher quickly runs through the controls, which are refreshingly minimalist and scarily agricultural. There’s a giant brake pedal, which operates on the rear external drums, and a huge quadrant lever to the driver’s side, which gives three fixed-speed drive voltages, in theory giving speeds 
of seven, 18 and 40km/h.

‘I have been in third gear,’ says Drescher, ‘but never at 40km/h. 
You’d need a long road, plenty of braking distance and a big heart.’

Climb into the driver’s seat, which looks more like a garden chair, and grasp the wood-and-brass steering wheel, while the inner chassis sways and bobs on its springs – heavy trucks also use this principle of separately springing cab and chassis. Watching Drescher, there’s clearly a lot of twirling required, but starting is a cinch. Ease the quadrant into first and the Semper Vivus rolls gently away from 
standstill – watch out ducks!

With the gas engines off, progress is near-silent. The pneumatic front tires gently deform over the cobbles, while the solid rear tires 
on wooden artillery wheels rumble gently. From the tummy button up, you are the tallest thing in the car and you feel enormously exposed. Contemporary photographs show drivers and passengers in Sunday best, but we know the bizarre lengths to which the earliest motorists would go to avoid wind and weather.

A corner approaches, the massive brake pedal is duly stood on and there’s the faintest impression of deceleration. The steering isn’t heavy but there’s a lot of it, and, with a turning circle approaching 16 meters, corners need careful planning and huge amounts of shuffling. Impressive as it is, even at walking pace, you only ever feel a small part of a democratic process in the direction of the Semper Vivus.

While the Semper Vivus was a one-off, the design was developed into the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, the first production gas-electric hybrid, which in 1906 became the Mercedes Electrique. Using the same hub motors, Lohner Porsche also produced the first-ever four-wheel-drive production car and the first racing car so-equipped. It was a fertile time, when early gas engines traded punches with electric power, but the early electric-motor technology and the extraordinary energy density of gas pushed cars in the direction of internal combustion. While the commercial and railway industries adopted hybrid drivelines, it took until 1993 and the launch of the first Toyota Prius for the motor industry to return to them, which Porsche has employed in its Cayenne SUV and its latest 918 Spyder racer and Panamera saloon models.

In that respect, the Semper Vivus was a portent of a hybrid-electric future. It’s only taken us 111 years to realize it

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